In Vienna’s historic Burgtheater last week, the pre-eminence of scholarly knowledge was put on trial. And surprisingly, for jurors who were all part of the academy in one way or another, including a prominent academic publisher and a professor of journalism, their verdict was we are not only witnessing the destruction of scholarly knowledge, but furthermore, it’s about time we did.
So the title was, ‘The Destruction of Knowledge, question mark,’” Lawrence Lessig, one of four panelists at the April 6 panel discussion, reflected at the end of the event. “I think we’ve replaced the question mark with an exclamation point, so ‘The Destruction of Knowledge? Yes!’”
Lessig, a Harvard law professor and co-founder of Creative Commons, was joined by onstage by two European academics, knowledge sociologist Armin Nassehi of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (AKA the University of Munich); Sara Miller McCune, the founder and executive chairman of academic publisher SAGE; and University of Tübingen philosophy professor Cornelia Klinger. Moderating the panel was Nicholas Lemann, a professor and former dean at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
In its preliminary stages, the discussion—the culmination of several days of dialog between scholars and publishers — had the English title of “Threats to Scholarly Knowledge.” But in its final form, the discussion was titled, in German, “Die Zerstörung des Wissens?” In English, “The Destruction of Knowledge?”
The discussion was held in both English and German, and panelist Sarah Miller-McCune—the founder of academic publisher SAGE– early on in the proceedings explained how the topic distinguished between “everyday knowledge” and “scholarly knowledge.” The latter, she explained after a question from moderator Nicholas Lemann, the Columbia University journalism professor, is produced by people who are specialists or exerts in their fields and which is then frequently critiqued by other experts in those fields. “And then,” and importantly, she added, “it is disseminated.”
In German, the word ‘knowledge’ itself is linked to the scholar: wissen for know, wissens for knowledge, and wissenschaft for science, and not just beakers-and-Bunsen burners science but the broader world of human investigation that verges on the humanities and even philosophy. The usage makes its way into the name of the institutional host (with Der Standard) for the discussion – the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen or Institute for Human Sciences.
Klinger, IWM’s interim rector, argued there have always been, and presumably always will be, threats to scholarly knowledge, in particular among the more philosophical branches. But much of the discussion held on April 6 veered away from the abstract and settled on that most concrete of subjects, money. Specifically, where does money to pay for scholarly knowledge come from, where ought it come from, and does it go to the right places.
What follows are some excerpts, in both words and video, from the event.
Destroying Un-Useful Knowledge – Lawrence Lessig
I’m in favor of knowledge destruction. I think knowledge destruction is an incredibly important step.
If you think about what we Americans knew a hundred years ago, what did we know? We knew that African Americans were inferior; we knew that women were too emotional to vote, we knew laissez faire economics was the right way to think about economics – there was no role for the government in the economy. We at Harvard were just beginning to deal with our own Jewish problem; [former Harvard President A. Lawrence] Lowell was beginning to work out the quota for Jews, that would block Jews from access to Harvard because there were too many Jews at Harvard. And we were just beginning to understand the special theory of relativity.
A hundred years later, only one of those five views is known anymore: We still believe the special theory of relativity. All those other views we now know are wrong. If you look at that, you should day the thing to worry about is the process by which knowledge is destroyed because that’s what brings us forward.
In my view, the way to preserve the destruction of knowledge is to keep focused on the two dimensions which I think are critical to that process. No. 1, independence, that the producers of knowledge have the right kind of independence , and no. 2, access, because the way in which those ‘truths’ were destroyed was by spreading them among a wider group of people so that they could be criticized, so that African-Americans could begin to say, ‘Hey, you know, we are not inferior,’ and women could begin to say, ‘Yeah, you know, actually we’d be pretty good if we could vote.’
Independence – Lawrence Lessig
The real concern we have in the United States right now is the concern about corporate influence in the production of knowledge, and the ability of the people in the business of producing knowledge to threaten the funders. That’s not just in the sciences. It’s critically in the legal profession, in the production of economic knowledge, the production of sociological knowledge; this threat from corporate funding is pervasive.
Grass is Always Greener
Nicholas Lemann: From an American standpoint we think you guys live in paradise because there is such strong support for the state supporting the academy and academic research in particular. But are we being too rosy about that?
Cornelia Klinger: Jah!
Counter Intelligence – Lawrence Lessig
We have to be appropriately skeptical of counting, of techniques for counting. So your complaints about journalism could be replicated in every other field. In universities in America, because the Reagan administration created something called the Bayh-Dole Act, which gave researchers in the university the ability to patent their research findings, and earn money for the university or themselves on the basis of that, has radically changed the nature of research in a couple of ways. No. 1, it’s changed the funding. We fund research departments that will produce patents, and no. 2, as researchers, you’re not as free to share your research. So if you’re in a field in which there are patents possible, 20 years ago or 30 years ago, you would go a to a conference and give a paper and talk about your research. Today your lawyers for your university tell you can’t talk about this in public until the patent has been successfully prosecuted. This facility to count the value of the research by the number of patents it produces changes dramatically the character of the research.
We need to find a way to stand up to the counters and say to the counters that’s one way to look at this but it’s not the whole picture.
A Publisher’s Perspective – Sara Miller McCune
When I look at the economics, if you will, of providing resources for the creation and the dissemination of scholarly knowledge, of knowledge that has been developed by experts that may have been judged by –and usually is judged by—other experts and often criticized and made better by those judgmental experts , I see a pretty huge gap between the public resources, the private resources, the corporate resources that are brought to bear on different disciplines. So medicine, for example, if you’re trying to find the cure for a particular type of cancer, your chances of being funded are much greater that if you’re trying to solve some economic problem which may or may not help the economy provide public goods or might end up developing better bombs to kill people—you don’t know.
The opposite is also true. If you want to spend your next five or 10 years thinking great thoughts, whether they’re in the area of philosophy or creating more beautiful art, or being the next great novelist, poet, playwright, you’re going to have a much harder time to get that funding. Is that “right?” Is that what we want when we talk about public goods? I’m not all that sure.
Who pays for scholarly knowledge – Lawrence Lessig
In the United States we have to embrace the idea that it comes from the government, much more than we embrace the idea in the United States right now. I think that we have to accept that there’s a need for public funding for public goods. In the United States this is a very controversial idea –it’s kind of amazing, but there it is. The idea that the public needs to fund public goods is something that we have to argue for every day. And we need to do it more effectively, so there needs to be much more support from taxes for public research and public funding . But the commitment, then, has got to be that that research is publicly available , freely available, means licensed in a way that anyone can use it and shared and shareable not just among the rich elite universities but shareable around the globe. This is the commitment that is nowhere close to being accepted in the United States.
I think one of the ways we get there is the public’s recognition of just how terrible the alternative is. When you can say to the public, ‘The financial collapse of 2008 was bought and paid for Goldman Sachs. And not only that, they profited from the collapse of 2008.’ When the public begins to recognize that the corruption of economic science is catastrophic for the economy, they’re more open to the idea that there ought to be a way to fund economic science that doesn’t depend on Goldman Sachs funding it. So part of the way we’re learning is to point to practical examples of how this compromise undermines peoples’ trust and confidence in what gets funded.
How to argue for philosophy – Lawrence Lessig
I don’t think the public is against philosophy. The people who are against philosophy are the presidents of universities who are trying to think, ‘How am I going to fund my university?’ Those presidents of universities who increasingly sit down with Exxon or representatives of Big Pharma are less eager to think about how am I going to fund departments that don’t have that kind of support. And so the real push has got to be to remind the leaders of the academy that they have an ethic which is deeper than the question of what’s the easiest way to fund my university.
Charity Begins at Home – Sara Miller McCune
Forty-nine years ago when I started SAGE and was encouraged to do that by my late husband, I did not dream that I was going to be a millionaire, and that was not the purpose of starting the company. It became a byproduct, and I’m happy to not just support myself and my little seven-pound Maltese dog (now that my husband is dead) but also to support some worthy institutions whether they be of higher education or doing other things in what I consider to be the public good. But just as I identify the public goods I care about, so do some people who have the exact opposite political leanings that I do, and they have even more millions, or in some cases even billions, to throw about, and for every bit of good that I may be doing, in my view they are doing as much or even more harm. How do I live with that? It’s difficult. But it is a reality in the United States. I think in Europe you may be in a similar situation without recognizing it because the money can only come from so many pockets. That money either comes from government or it comes from the wealthy or it comes from corporations. Maybe we should all go out and hunt for gold and there would be more available. But short of doing that, there are only so many sources of funds. What you do with them at the end of the day measures, to some degree, how well you can live with yourself. And how well you live with your society, with where you choose to call home.
Our Kids Have Become the New Soviets – Lawrence Lessig